June 2010

Women in Wine: The Communicators

By: Lana Bortolot
photos by the author

THE TASTING PANEL continues its year-long look at women in wine and spirits. This month, Lana Bortolot talks with three women who have proved that communication is an art.

Mary Ewing Mulligan, New York City

Try to find something Mary Ewing Mulligan isn't good at.

Wine for Dummies, one of seven wine books she's co-authored with husband Ed McCarthy, has sold nearly one million copies. In the industry, she's received accolades for professional excellence (2009), distinguished achievement (2003) and wine education (1994).

Mary Ewing Mulligan, MW.
Then there's the Master of Wine credential. As in, the first female MW in the United States-one of only four in the country and 75 in the world. But it is as President of the International Wine Center, the largest wine school in the country, that Mulligan is best known.

"Learning about wine is serious business, and I've always been innately humbled because no one can know everything about it." That's why the Dummy books were appealing. "It was the idea of opening the doors and clearing the confusion," she says, a process she calls transformative and which required respecting the reader and their choices, while encouraging them to drink out of the box.

Ending up in education is an irony, given that Mulligan rejected teaching as one of the few career options available to her. "I'm still a huge believer in the women's movement, and it made me believe I could be a successful career person as opposed to someone who just holds a job."

And while she doesn't think along gender lines, Mulligan says she enjoys her work because of the women in it. "We women can be very straightforward with each other, do what we love and be authentic about it."

Diane Teitelbaum, Dallas, Texas

For years, if a Dallas wine merchant saw a customer walk into the store with a newspaper clipping in hand, they breathed a sigh of relief knowing the impending transaction wouldn't require the art of the hand sell. Why? Likely the customer was a reader of the Dallas Times Herald or the Dallas Morning News and was acting upon the sage advice of wine journalist Diane Teitelbaum, herself a one-time wine retailer.

"I never considered myself a good writer, but the material was true and written in a voice that was clear as a bell," Teitelbaum says. "People who knew about wine knew the information was correct, and people who didn't know could understand it."

Proving that the sum of the parts equals the whole, Teitelbaum created her own business from wine-centric activities over 25 years, as wine correspondent for the Dallas Morning News and, more recently, as an educator and international judge, consultant to major hospitality brands and private collectors and appraiser for auctions. As an American Airlines consultant, she built an award-winning wine list on international routes in just two years' time.

Being a woman in both an industry and in a state renown for its machismo didn't stop Teitelbaum.

Diane Teitelbaum.

"I didn't think about it and I didn't know it wasn't supposed to be easy for women. I just went out and did what I did and didn't think a thing about it," she said, adding, "There was no reason why women can't do as well as men, and men do as well as women."

Marsha Palanci, New York City

A long-time interest in all things European led Marsha Palanci into the food and wine worlds.

Fluency in French (she was raised in France and Belgium and has a master's degree in medieval French literature) landed her a job at Food and Wines of France, where she promoted that country's most sublime exports-gourmet mustard, snails and cheese.

Marsha Palanci.
 That delicious path set Palanci up for a heady career at Schieffelin & Co. (later acquired by Moët-Hennessy USA) where she managed such brands as Dom Pérignon, Moët & Chandon, Hennessy Cognac and Ruffino. And here, playing in the big leagues also meant fighting for credibility as a businesswoman.

"Back then, we had to camouflage ourselves and be as much like the guys as possible," she said. "The guys really didn't welcome you, and you had to make yourself valuable." When she reached the VP level, Palanci made a decision to go even higher. So she started Cornerstone Communications, a PR firm specializing in lifestyle marketing with a keen focus on wine and spirits.

"The credentials from Schieffelin gave me a huge leg up, but I wanted to be my own boss," she said. Twenty years strong, Cornerstone has excelled in a niche industry that seemingly everyone wants a part of.

"I'd say it's harder now to be in the business because it's become a sexy thing to do, but we remain expertise-driven," Palanci says. All members of her staff-coincidentally, all women-receive formal wine education, and they spend as much time brand- and relationship-building as creating buzz through social media vehicles.

At the end, says Palanci, it all comes back to a tried and true strategy: "Finding programs that are relevant, that make sense for clients and will resonate with consumers."

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